Not All Attention is Created Equal

2016 March 2

Much of what we do as caregivers can be summed up in two words: giving attention.

Most people dismiss the value of attention because this act of care seemingly requires no special skill set. So, the thinking goes, if anybody can give attention to a loved one in need, then it clearly isn’t very unique. But here’s the catch—so few people are capable of giving the kind of attention loved ones need because not all attention is created equal.

(Body) Part Attention— Although this type of attention is essential among medical experts and practitioners, it is perhaps the most divided attention caregivers can give to loved ones.  This attention focuses attention on people’s bodies and body parts—turning care into an endless search for accurate, clear, and more (always more) information about origins, symptoms, and causes of diseases or illnesses. People who give bodily attention become intimately familiar with body parts or symptoms but, in the process, they can’t help but (unintentionally) neglect the very person they love who has the very symptoms or disease they have devoted most of their time, energy, and focus to researching.  In other words, you can only type generic body parts and names of diseases and symptoms into the Google search box. Typing in your loved one’s name, however, won’t allow insight into who they are and what they might need or want from you.

Convenient Attention—This form of attention is provided when it is convenient for the person giving attention, not necessarily the patient/loved one. Convenient attention is usually given by friends and neighbors and is typically expressed with statements such as, “I’m going to come by your house and read to you three times a week…” or “I’m going to call you everyday to see how you are doing.” Because this attention is based on convenience, it can sometimes create false expectations that are rarely met. Sadly, this type of attention revolves around others’ work or social mood calendars, not the “need calendar” of the person longing for attention. People who provide convenient attention find it hard to overcome the pressing needs of their everyday experiences, often uttering phrases to themselves such as,  “I’m not really up for visiting today,” or “I can always go next week. I’m just not feeling it right now.”

Conditional Attention—This type of attention is characterized by a carrots and stick approach to caregiving. In other words, well-intentioned, tough love means attention is given with strings attached—making sure your loved one “gets better.” When attention is focused exclusively on a loved one’s potential to get better, attention is all about improvement and almost never about the value of the person staring back at you. Conditional attention dangles the promise of appreciation just beyond the outstretched arms of a loved one because it is used to prompt, inspire, and cajole a loved one to do more, to expect more, and become better/healthier. Although conditional attention may have noble aspirations, this kind of attention too often reminds a loved one that their worth is always about tomorrow—when they have “overcome” a disease or medical condition—not about who they are today.

Caregiver’s Attention—As caregivers, we know that all attention is not created equal. Even though attention seemingly requires no particular set of skills, caregivers have the capacity to provide a different type of attention than most others: attention without qualifiers. Attention without distraction is overwhelming for most others. Attention without escaping into smart phones and incoming texts is unthinkable for most others. Attention without being able to predict what may happen in the spontaneity of the moment is too scary for most others. Attention without holding loved ones’ captive to whom they used to be or who they might not be able to be tomorrow is implausible for most others. Attention—without qualifiers—is a caregiver’s most rare capacity. It’s also the reason caregivers are so different than most others.




2 Responses leave one →
  1. March 5, 2016

    This is so interesting. It reminds me of two things – the first is Eva Kittay’s work on the idea of the caregiver ‘transparent self’ as a manifestation of attention without qualifiers. The second is something that happened to me when our son was small that relates to body part attention. Our Nicholas has severe cerebral palsy and at that time, we were doing a lot of physical therapy. I was so focused on his arms and legs that one day, I realized I had almost stopped looking at sweet son’s face. The realization shocked and saddened me. I wanted my boy to be more than just my ‘project’ – whether or not he could do the exercises, I realized, didn’t equate to his value, his future prospects or my worth as a mother. I began to look at his face again, intentionally.

  2. March 6, 2016

    As always, such powerful insights. Thanks for the connection to Eva Kittay’s work. I’m going to check that out as it sounds fascinating. Thank you for sharing your own caregiver experiences with your son. So many forces seem to take us away from looking at the person before us. You speak so eloquently of “intentional” care. Thank you again for comments. Just got my copy of your book, The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I’ve Learned from a Life of Caregiving!

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